Saturday, February 23, 2008

Who Needs Flowers?

I’ll admit it. I’m a freak for form and foliage (and using the letter ‘f’ many times). Flowers are great. It’s like the rush you feel from infatuation – a quickening of the pulse and flush of the cheeks, then a slow fade to normalcy. It doesn’t have the staying power of a long-term relationship based on a strong foundation. Sure, the bright colors of a Better Homes and Gardens-style perennial border stimulate they eye, but once that burst of color peaks, it’s downhill.

My highest admiration is reserved for designs that exploit the infinite range of visual combinations that come from the more permanent characteristics of plants – their overall form (or architecture), foliage color, the fineness or boldness of the leaves, their surface texture.

This is not to say that I avoid flowering plants in my designs. Far from it. The designs just don’t depend on it. I’ve realized after a few decades that when the flowers fade, the dead-heading is done, and there’s no bone structure left to provide interest, you might as well plow the whole thing under, cover the ground with mulch and wait for the next planting season. But if there’s an underlying composition that continues to contribute interest throughout the year, then you’ve really got something.

Try this comparison.

The first garden on the right has no flowers. Its composition emphasizes the contrasting elements of bright yellow-green Helichrysum ‘Limelight’ in the mid-ground, the somber Eugenia hedge and lighter Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ grass at the back, and the dark green filaments of Juncus patens (California Rush) in the foreground. Oh yes, there’s a sandstone boulder that’s to die for! The garden looks like this pretty much every day of the year with minimal maintenance. `

This garden is what many people strive for – bright, colorful flowers (two varieties of begonia), a simple color scheme of pink and white, and a crisp edge of dwarf Agapanthus. I’ll be the first to tell you that this creates a charming entry bed that sets off the base of the statue. But what happens when the flowers subside? The foliage color and texture of both begonias are identical, and the leaf color of the Agapanthus merges with the others. The only interest comes from the textural differences between the two species.

These black and white comparisons tell it all.

Imagine we had no color vision. Which garden would hold your interest? The complexity of the first composition blows the second out of the water.

Now imagine the first garden WITH a great palette of colorful, tastefully combined flowers and you have it all. Not to take anything away from people who create stunning floral borders, but the type of design I’m endorsing takes a lot more effort and deeper knowledge of plants.

Thanks for reading. I hope this stimulates some discussion and helps you with your own garden.


Leslie said...

As usual you give us lots to use in our own gardens and good explanations...although I'm still a pushover for flowers I think I'm getting better about not relying on them for all the visual interest out there!

Garden Wise Guy said...

Leslie - thanks for stopping by. Everyone has their own turn-ons when it comes to design. I just find that having a good underpinning makes any garden that much stronger. Enjoy your green endeavors and thanks for the compliment.

WiseAcre said...

You "cheated" :)

I'll always pick a garden with rock in it. Hardscape is as important as foliage.

But you're right, foliage does make a garden. Flowers are fleeting and you need to think about the whole season.

annesgarden said...

Interesting post and photo comparison, some thing to think ab out, that's for sure. Happy GTS!

No Rain said...

Great info. Since we have long periods in summer with little blooming, it is necessary to pay attention to form and foliage to have a nice looking garden. In spring, the added bright colors of annuals and wildflowers make it really special, though fleeting.
Happy GTS,

Yolanda Elizabet said...

But Billy *a garden that looks pretty much like this every day of the year* sounds like a snorefest to me. ;-) I like flowers all year round but different ones from week to week as they lead me through the year. One of the joys of gardening for me is to see what is in flower today. Garden no 1 won't do it for me, I'm afraid. :-) Nor does garden no 2, as I consider that another snorefest. Variety, structure, foliage, flowers, wildlife, trees, veggies, fruit, water, sky, earth, grass etc. that's what a garden is all about for me.

Garden Wise Guy said...

Yolanda - point well taken. I do endorse the introduction of floral color at the end of this post. My point is that too many people dump a vast array of herbaceous live-fast-die-young flowers into a border and call it a garden, but those tend to be too ephemeral.

In the interest of brevity, I didn't go further into my design philosophy, which allow us to have it all. It consists of creating concentrated pockets of herbaceous flowering plants within the greater composition, and putting them where they act as focal points. Perhaps I'll round out the picture in a future post.

Thanks for taking the counterpoint position. This is the beauty and the frustration of explaining complex concepts via a blog - not enough room to really do it justice, but a great forum to discuss what's been said.

Hoping you have a wonderful spring.

karen said...

Well, I take your point, and I am becoming better about structure in my old age. Nevertheless, in January what my garden lacks is not form, but COLOR.

Rocks are gorgeous and I'm very envious of those who can have them, but if you live, like me, on a 60-mile wide sandbank, rocks look incongruous in the garden and we have to get our structure from elsewhere.

Ross Nevette said...

Hi Billy,

Thanks for adding my blog to your favourites! This is a good point you're making. If I think back to my first gardens, I definitely relied too heavily on flowers (and even plants of a too similar texture). I think our eye needs something different to keep it interested, colour is only one of those interests.

Ewa said...

very interesting subject I are briging up. There is more light needed to design and planning, than just having flowers - I love them true, but garden should look beautiful 12 months a year. And that's a real challenge for both professional and non-professional gardeners.
Thank you